The Weirdness of Becoming Real Friends With Your Work Friends

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There is an Onion headline that is, as Onion headlines are, very funny — but this one is also rather sweet, in an odd way: “Work Friend Accidentally Becomes Real Friend.” “Despite making no deliberate efforts to engage with his coworker beyond the point of pleasant acquaintance,” the accompanying article intones, “Eric Phipps said Thursday he was astonished to discover he had inadvertently forged a personal bond with fellow web developer Michael Jenkins.”

This is the way of workplace friendships: They creep up on you. One day you are strictly colleagues, until, seemingly all of a sudden, you are actual pals who regularly see each other outside of the office, and on purpose. Recently, a team of organizational psychologists set out to investigate this sometimes murky relationship, and specifically how becoming true friends with those you work with directly can impact your work performance. They term this sort of friendship, by the way, a “multiplex relationship”; scientists are not always so great at coming up with catchy terms for things, but so it is.

The gist of their findings, essentially, is that these relationships complicate matters at work, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In one experiment, the researchers surveyed about 300 staffers at an insurance firm — psychology writer Christian Jarrett, writing at BPS Research Digest this week, succinctly explains what happened from there:

These staff, who had varied roles across the firm, provided a list of 10 colleagues they worked with closely in pursuit of their responsibilities and 10 staff who they considered to be friends and who they socialised with outside of work. The more overlap there was between a person’s two lists, the more multiplex relationships they had. The participants also completed measures of emotional exhaustion and work-related positive emotions. Four weeks later, the participants’ supervisors were contacted and rated the participants’ job performance.

In the end, the people who reported having more of those “multiplex” relationships also tended to receive higher marks on their work performance. But there was a catch. Those with more workplace friends also reported higher levels of emotional exhaustion, “presumably because of the effort involved in maintaining more complex relationships,” Jarrett writes. How, for instance, do you figure out a way to nicely tell someone you’ve come to care about that you think her ideas for a new project are kind of terrible?

A second experiment — this one in a variety of different settings, including three shops and six restaurants — confirmed these somewhat contradictory findings. More work friends was correlated with better overall performance at work as rated by their supervisors — and yet at the same time, those who had more work friends “tended to report having difficulties maintaining their relationships.”

There are trade-offs here, in other words, but overall the researchers come to the not-so-shocking conclusion that it is indeed a good thing to form friendships with the people you work with directly. Among their recommendations, in fact, is a message to managers to introduce communication tools “that simultaneously allow employees to collaborate and share task information while getting to know each other on a social level.” Allow me to translate that for you from the academic-ese: Spend more time goofing off with your colleagues on Slack.

When Your Work Friends Become Your Real Friends